Jerusalem has its own St. Nick
Jerusalem has its own St. Nick — and this jolly man has diplomas as proof
JERUSALEM — It’s a busy time of year for Santas worldwide. But for Jerusalem’s Mr. Claus, it’s been particularly hectic.
Recently, a restless crowd waited outside the shiny red door of his tinsellined home on Santa Claus Lane in Jerusalem’s Old City.
It was a familiar scene, one played out in thousands of malls and stores across the globe — children and parents eagerly seeking a little face time with the kindly red-suited gentleman.
Yet in Jerusalem, the traditional trappings of Christmas are hard to find, despite the Old City’s cobblestone streets being the backdrop to much of this holiday’s story.
Even as thousands of Christian pilgrims make their way to the Holy Land this time of year, fairy lights, seasonal music, and an official Santa are all conspicuously absent.
But not this year.
In July, Issa Kassissieh participated in the annual World Santa Claus Congress in Copenhagen and became a full-fledged certified Santa.
And with that, Jerusalem had its own St. Nick.
Kassissieh formally began his Santa duties Dec. 1, and he has already greeted about 3,000 visitors with sparkling Santa stardust, imported candy canes and fake snow. When he’s not working from home, he’s out visiting the sick and others who cannot make it to him.
“I am the only official Santa of the Holy Land,” Kassissieh, 40, said.
He pointed proudly to the neatly framed diplomas hanging on the wall above his special Santa desk, on which stands the manual typewriter he uses to respond to letters and requests he receives fromfans all year round.
Kassissieh, an Arab Christian and former professional basketball player, is a well-known figure in Jerusalem. For years he had donned the red suit and white beard, findingfameas possibly the only Santa whose preferred mode of transport is a camel, as opposed to a reindeer.
But, taking his role seriously, Kassissieh decided to become formally certified, attending Santa schools in Colorado and in Michigan, as well as the Copenhagen congress.
“People think that anyone can just put on a red suit, but you also need to study the special spirit and the joy of Santa,” he said.
You also need to know how to bake cookies and carve wooden toys, apparently — all skills Kassissieh has mastered at special Santaworkshops.
Everything in his “Santa’s House” — a 700-year-old stone structure in a narrow alley that is decked with Christmas lights and a helpful sign directing visitors to “Jerusalem,” “the North Pole,” “Santa’s House” and “Santa’s workshop” — is handcrafted. He has even built a full-size Santa sleigh.
“Theyalso teach youhow to talk to children, how to dress properly, to be clean and smell good,” he said. “You need to show happiness andwelcome everyone — even those who are scared of you — with a smile.”
But that is no easy feat in Jerusalem, where political and religious tensions can sour even the most genuine of gestures.
In the past, the appearance of Christmas trees and other holiday decorations in malls and hotels has drawn protests from ultra-Orthodox Jews. Last week, a shopping mall in the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashdod sparked an uproar by erecting a Christmas tree in its central plaza.
One city council member from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said it was “intended to hurt anyone who identifies as Jewish.”
“My aim as Jerusalem Santa is to bring everyone together with peace and security,” Kassissieh said. The recent tensions between Israelis and Palestinians would not deter him from spreading Santa’s joy, he added.
“We are all human,” said Kassissieh, who receives Jewish, Muslim and Christian visitors.
Sarah Tuttle-Singer, a Jerusalem- based writer who is Jewish, took her two children to visit Santa recently. She said it was important to her that her children learn about other religions and cultures.
“My kids love the lights and the tree and the candy and the holiday spirit even though they know it isn’t our holiday,” Tuttle-Singer said. “They especially love how jolly Santa is and how he laughs and makes them feel special.”
Kassissieh’s journey to Santa-hood started in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, where much of the city’s Christian population lives andworks.
Hewas born just a stone’s throw from the Church of theHoly Sepulchre, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected.
“Even though I grew up here, the center of Christianity, we did not celebrate Christmas like they do in other countries,” he said. “I really wanted to bring what I saw in Europe and in America to the children here, too.”
Now, as Santa, Kassissieh does just that.
Opening the door to his lovingly crafted home on Santa Claus Lane and greeting his visitors every evening with a “Ho, ho, ho” fromtheHoly Land.
Issa Kassissieh, 40, greets children at Santa’s House in Jerusalem. “I am the only official Santa of the Holy Land,” he says.